Reynolds, Vernon., and Ralph Tanner. The Social Ecology of Religion
New York: 1983. ISBN 0195069730
Conclusion: organized, institutionalized religion tends to fall in step with the secular world, to enjoy the fruits of power. But what about the common man? He gets no share in the power of the state or its religion except what he can achieve by his own efforts. How does the common man see religion in the modern world? What is his relationship to the priesthood, the clergy, the temple, the mosque? By and large, his contact with these people and buildings and the ideas they promote is strongest at particular life events, at birth and incorporation and marriage and death, and in the control of crises. Religions take an interest in the life process of their adherents. They try to control the way their adherents live their lives. It is a kind of deal: religions say, “Live your life according to the faith, and you will get benefits, some in this life, some in the next.” It is this extraordinary “deal” that we write about in this book—
the various forms it takes in different faiths. Even in the consumerist environment of the West, religion plays this part. Churches are by no means empty in Western Europe; indeed, there appears to be a religious revival going on in the U.S. Midwest. Baptisms, marriages, and funerals have not disappeared. In the affluent West we may not need much from religion, but many people still in large measure accept that it has a role to play in their main life events. American university students sometimes pray for the success of their basketball teams, and British football and rugby players can occasionally be seen to cross themselves as they run onto the field of play. For the rest, we feel we can manage without religious supports, preferring material ones.
The reverse is the case in many parts of the world. Not everyone has the range of materialist accoutrements available to us in the West, though in most parts of the world’s cultures there is an eager desire to have more and more of them.
This is not the place to digress into the attractions of consumerism, or the faults. We simply need to note that among people all over the world there is a desire to Westernize the interface between themselves and the natural environment. For the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari and Namibia until the midtwentieth century this desire was very limited. Their technology consisted of digging sticks, spears, gourds, clothes, some simple jewelry, fire-making equipment, and temporary shelters. For many rural Africans today, possessions are limited to a house, a hoe, some cooking pots, a bicycle, clothes, baskets, and gourds. Those who can afford it also have a tape recorder or radio, but such is the poverty that in many cases batteries are not obtained. In much of rural India, and a good many other countries, the situation is not far different. The contrast with the West is enormous. Yet, without patronizing, on such slender materialist means full lives are led. The problem for such people is that their lack of physical resources limits their ability to respond to disease or accident or disaster of any kind, except my means which we think to be ineffective in scientific terms. They are not, however, short of faith and hope and are well provided with traditional priests and traditional remedies. The quality of life of the world’s poor is curiously undiminished by materialist deprivation, as visitors to poor countries are often surprised to discover.
Do consumerism and materialism diminish faith? At root, materialism is about being able to resist the hardships and difficulties and dangers of the physical world. The most important materialist possessions are those which enable a person to avoid hunger, thirst, disease, and injury and to maintain a comfortable edge on the fluctuations and occasional disasters of life.
People in affluent populations who can use technology to solve their problems do not, it seems, need religious supports as much and can manage without them for the most part. This very exception indicates what religion does for people in the rest of the world: it meets their needs and helps them cope with life’s difficulties.
Religions express the social and moral integration of individuals into their communities, inform them how to think correctly and behave properly, and give them support at times of crisis. In all these ways, they fulfill the needs of individuals. They perform social and psychological functions. If we see human beings as intelligent creatures living in complex social groups, with long life spans that include a number of life crises, always in a world subject to natural disasters and diseases, we can explain why religions exist in terms of the social functions they perform in relation to the life cycle of individual persons, and between one person and another, always in the context of the prevailing features of the natural environment.
Our approach relates the success of religions to their ability to meet human needs during the course of the life cycle, from conception to death. Because of the universality of the life cycle, we expect that religions will survive the onslaughts of modernism, which worships at the altar of consumerism and materialism. It seems unlikely that material things can perform the role religions perform all over the world.